The five gunmen who attacked a chemical tanker in the Gulf of Aden on Sunday and were later captured by the U.S. Navy were Somali pirates, American officials said Monday.
The five were in the custody of the U.S. Navy and were being questioned, U.S. officials said. The officials said the Somali pirates had no apparent connection to Iran or to Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are supported by Tehran.
More than 16 hours after the attempted takeover of the tanker, two ballistic missiles were fired from Houthi-controlled parts of Yemen toward the site of the attempted hijacking, though the missiles landed 10 nautical miles away from the U.S.S. Mason, the ship that responded to the attempted piracy and captured the gunmen.
A U.S. official said that episode was still being investigated to see if it was an opportunistic attack by Houthi rebels or if the missile strike was unrelated.
The U.S.S. Mason, and other ships from the U.S.-led counter-piracy task force that operates off the coast of Somalia, responded Sunday morning after the crew of the commercial ship, the Central Park, called for help. The Central Park crew reported they were under attack from an unknown entity, U.S. Central Command said Sunday.
When the coalition vessels arrived at the Central Park, they demanded the release of the ship. Five armed people fled from the ship and attempted to flee in the small boat they had used to attack the cargo ship. The U.S.S. Mason pursued the attackers and forced them to surrender, the news release said.
Regional tensions have intensified since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel. But after their initial questioning of the captured gunmen, U.S. officials concluded that the attack on Sunday was unrelated to the conflict.
Complicating the initial assessment was the fact that Houthi rebels attacked several commercial vessels last week in the Red Sea,which connects to the Gulf of Aden. The Houthis and other groups backed by Iran, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, have increased attacks on Israel since Oct. 7.
But Sunday’s attack in the Gulf of Aden took place well away from where the Houthis operate.
Somali pirates have been a hazard to international shipping for nearly 20 years. Protecting commercial shipments from such attacks is why the U.S. helped create the international coalition of navies that patrol a shipping corridor in the Gulf of Aden.
Zodiac Maritime, the London-based company that manages the vessel, said that the ship and crew are now safe and unharmed but provided few further details. Zodiac Maritime is led by Eyal Ofer, an Israeli-born shipping magnate.